You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Racist Gatekeepers of American Land

From segregated lakes to Christian Cooper, white supremacy has long dictated access and safety in public green space and nature.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The way many white Americans consider others in relation to public spaces, public lands, and nature is inherently proprietary. This is in large part because the history behind all of these spaces, and the forces that are paid to defend them for the state, are defined by discrimination and exclusion. It’s a regime that’s enforced every day, in ways that are both subtle and explicit. What happened in New York City earlier this week was explicit. After Amy Cooper, a white woman, refused to follow park rules and leash her dog despite being asked to by Christian Cooper, a Black man out bird-watching, she called 911 and told dispatchers, “There’s a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet, he is recording me and threatening me and my dog.”

The exchange brought back into focus a larger, ongoing conversation about public space and racism, particularly as it relates to green space, public parks, and national parks. Amy Cooper called the police because of an unquestioned sense of entitlement to open space. As though the park was for her. She felt this way because, for the most part, this is how these spaces have been constructed. Black, Native, and Latinx residents are all underrepresented in national park attendance, a trend, fed by racism and classism, that the federal government has reported on publicly since as early as 1962. Looking to urban green spaces, where access to nature is already limited, people of color face issues of zoning and police discrimination. Although criminal justice reform in recent years has brought a stop to the harsh penalties attached to “park after dark” summonses, the pandemic and city governments’ supposed unbiased enforcement of social distancing has instead been a reminder that the rules are enforced along these same lines. The wealthier, whiter parkgoers in the West Village were allowed a day in the sun, while the folks in Harlem found locked park gates.

So who are America’s public spaces and land for? Are they even America’s to start with? We are given the answers to these questions every single day.

As Yessenia Funez wrote for Earther, “The outdoors were never made for people of color.” The city, state, and national parks; the beaches; the town squares—were designed as havens for white citizens of a certain financial status. In Chicago, in 1919, white teenagers at Lake Michigan stoned a black teenager named Eugene Williams to death when his raft drifted onto the “white side” of the lake. Fifty years later, Black residents in Connecticut staged wade-ins up and down the state’s shoreline—a protest against the fact that wealthy, white residents had privatized 65 of the 72 available miles of beaches. This, too, is the work of white supremacy.

You can see the same overwhelming whiteness in the original makeup of the mainstream environmental movement and conservationists, who propagated the idea that only a certain subset of Americans know who and what is best for the land. This legacy of racism runs deep. Is foundational to the land as it exists now, in fact.

In the case of this nation’s original sin—the theft of the very land itself—the previous Indigenous stewards were viewed as having no understanding of the potential capital that could be derived from the lakes, rivers, plains, deserts, and mountains they had successfully overseen for centuries. And so the land was stolen for white profit and pleasure. The forefathers of America’s public spaces, like those of the nation itself, grounded their vision in these same sentiments. Theodore Roosevelt used the Forest Service he created to steal Blue Lake from the Taos Pueblo. Madison Grant, who joined Roosevelt in launching the National Park System, was as avid a white supremacist and eugenicist as existed and created his parks—Yellowstone among them—with his worldview that “the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America ‘an asylum for the oppressed,’ [is] sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss” close in mind.

The presidential faces of Mount Rushmore, that grand spectacle to white American exceptionalism, were blown out of the Lakota’s sacred Black Hills, stolen for gold and extractive industry. Renowned twentieth-century conservationist and writer Edward Abbey enjoyed nature almost as much as he did explaining his xenophobic theories on why Latinx and Native governments and communities were just naturally inept. So is it any surprise that, in 2020, it is Pueblo and Diné land that America seeks to mine; it is Hopi and Tohono O’odham land that it uses for its walls; and it is Sioux land—not the precious national parks—America has deemed the most logical route for its toxic pipelines?

Fight back against any of these decisions with a single ounce of physical resistance, and the power of the state will be summoned: Where Amy Cooper called the cops, governors and extractive industries call the State Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, and coalitions of local cops to protect their precious pipelines. The cops always show up, tear-gas canisters and K-9s in hand, because that’s what they’re trained and paid to do.

I’m thinking about all this in relation to the racist Central Park incident and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, because in each we are confronted once again by both individual action and broader structures. The attention that Amy Cooper’s false report has been granted over the past several days is notable for many reasons—among them the fact that the police did not respond to Christian Cooper’s presence in the park with violence and the swift (and rare) consequences Amy Cooper faced for her racism. Over the past few years, social media has expanded from exposing regular police violence to capturing the everyday acts of racism committed by people not on the public payroll. Watching white people cavalierly dangle the lethal threat of law enforcement on people of color otherwise trying to enjoy themselves peacefully in a public space has turned into something of a twisted national pastime. BBQ Becky stumbled so Amy Cooper could fall flat on her face.

No one should feel particularly bad about the fact that Amy Cooper, unlike many offenders of her ilk, actually had to deal with the consequences of her actions. There’s no real reason to. But too much individualizing of the conflict can lead to tunnel vision: You can fire Amy Cooper, but there’s another Amy Cooper in the same park, waiting to call the same cops, who are policing those parks in the same racist ways anyway.

So you hold the structural and individual in your hands at the same time: Thinking back again to Indian Country, Native citizens should explode with fury on South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s anti-sovereignty pipeline-protection play against the Sioux nations’ checkpoints and direct their energy at rebuilding the blatantly corrupt Department of Interior that makes it possible. They should shake with anger over the mother who called armed police to detain two Mohawk teenage brothers taking a tour of Colorado State University and they should call for the repatriation of the 89,001 acres of Indigenous land the university received and capitalized on through land grants. And likewise, Native citizens should recognize that any individual or structural actions of anti-Blackness are not entirely separate from the issues faced by Indian Country. These acts are in fact another prong of the same discriminatory mindset America continues to perpetuate, and they underscore the need for our unwavering expression of solidarity if they are ever to be changed.

Holding both the racist and the racist system accountable and being aware of the history that made them possible is as necessary and crucial as ever. We see history alive in the present. We see how space is governed and guarded. America could be a place where public space and land is equitably and rightfully accessed by everyone, but white supremacist gatekeeping of public life won’t go quietly. We will have to fight for it.